A commitment to faith

Funeral Mass celebrated for Dr. Aurelia Montgomery, longtime school leader

By Bill Brewer

Dr. Montgomery

Dr. Aurelia Montgomery, a veteran educator who served as a teacher, principal, and superintendent of schools during her long, distinguished tenure in the Diocese of Knoxville, died on April 8 following a brief illness. She was 88.

Archbishop Emeritus Joseph E. Kurtz served as celebrant for the April 19 funeral Mass at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, where Dr. Montgomery was a longtime member. Father David Boettner, rector of the cathedral, delivered the homily and concelebrated the Mass along with Father Peter Iorio, pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Alcoa, Father John Orr, pastor of St. Mary in Athens, and Father Pontian Kiyimba, parochial administrator of St. Mary in Gatlinburg and Good Shepherd in Newport. Deacon Sean Smith served as deacon of the Word and Deacon Walt Otey served as deacon of the altar.

Father Orr led a rosary for Dr. Montgomery on April 18 at Rose Mortuary-Mann Heritage Chapel in Knoxville.

Among those in attendance at the funeral Mass were a host of current and former Diocese of Knoxville educators and former students. Father Boettner acknowledged the school leaders in the congregation and pointed to those leading the music liturgy, which was a youth choir composed of diocesan students.

Father Boettner’s homily was an homage to Dr. Montgomery’s life.

“I want to try to capture the Scriptures and Dr. Montgomery’s life in three ways. Dr. Montgomery loved her Italian heritage so much that I am using three Italian words. The first one is coraggio. The second one is camminata. And the third one is fiat,” the cathedral rector said.

Dr. Montgomery’s maiden name was Punaro, and her descendants hailed from Italy. Extended members of her family included the Varallo families in Chattanooga and Nashville.

“Well, that word coraggio, courage, I think is emblematic of Aurelia’s life because she was a woman of courage. Courage is often portrayed as someone who is brave. And that’s true. But courage is doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason despite your own fears. She had to face her own fears many times because being a single mother, being a woman in the Church, being someone in education, there were many challenges that she faced,” Father Boettner said.

“Dr. Montgomery always tried to choose to do the right thing at the right time for the right reason. That’s courage. And it shaped her life. It took her from being a teacher to a school leader, to a superintendent, to a school leader, to a school leader, to a school leader. It seems that Dr. Montgomery never got tired of saying yes, of being willing to allow her life to serve the needs of the Church. And that’s a beautiful testament to who she is,” he added.

Dr. Montgomery was born in Augusta, Ga., and her family also lived in Nashville, Memphis, and Louisville, Ky. She graduated from Immaculate Conception High School in Memphis in the early 1950s and then graduated from George Peabody College for Teachers (now part of Vanderbilt University) in the mid-1950s. She was widowed at the age of 36 in 1972 when her son, Paul, was 8 years old.

She moved to Knoxville from Silver Spring, Md., in 1978 and began teaching at Knoxville Catholic High School that year.

In continuing his homily, Father Boettner said, “The second word is camminata. If you ever were in the cathedral any time before noon Mass, you saw this lovely lady walking around the church—fast. Really fast. And praying the rosary as she goes. The camminata is a little walk. Dr. Montgomery’s faith was always connected to the rosary. She would walk all the way around the church. She would get her steps in, and she would pray the rosary. But she was always praying the rosary for us. She was never praying for herself. She was always praying for us. And she would always be here. I could tell if she was in the church because I could see that the pages of the memorial book of the priests had been flipped. She had her favorites. I won’t say who they were. She would flip the book and pray for those priests, and pray for her friends, and her family, and everybody else. That was part of her ministry, even after she had long stopped being a school leader. She was still a leader in faith. She was a leader in intercessory prayer for all of us,” Father Boettner recalled.

“And as she walked around on her little walk every day, she always thought about us. She also prayed with the saints. I think that’s what helped her on that walk. She was always praying with the saints. She was never alone; she was never on her own. She was always connected to the faith of the Church and the witness of those who have gone before us in faith. There maybe are a few students who she was praying for as well. She always wanted to be that person engaged in prayer for the world, the Church, and for those who she loved,” he said.

The third word Father Boettner had in mind for Dr. Montgomery unmistakably pertained to her faith.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz blesses with holy water the cremains of Dr. Aurelia Montgomery during the April 19 funeral Mass at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus for the longtime educator. Father David Boettner, cathedral rector, left, concelebrated the Mass. Assisting at right are Deacon Sean Smith and Deacon Walt Otey. Standing behind them is Father Peter Iorio, pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Alcoa. (Photo Bill Brewer)

“The last part is important. The fiat. Now, April 8 may not sound like a particularly impor tant date to many of you. Normally, it wouldn’t be. This year is kind of a unique year. This year, March 25 fell during Holy Week. Normally, that’s the feast of the Annunciation. Because it fell during Holy Week, that feast was transferred to April 8. Only Dr. Montgomery would have paid attention to that and would have chosen to die on the day of the Annunciation. She wouldn’t have done it on March 25 because it wasn’t proper on the Church’s calendar. She would have waited until April 8. And she did. That’s appropriate because it’s in the feast of the Annunciation that we see the Archangel Gabriel show up with Mary and give her a call that requires great courage: to be able to say yes, not knowing exactly what that’s going to look like, but being willing to say yes,” Father Boettner related to the congregation and those who were viewing the funeral Mass via livestream.

“That’s what fiat means. It means ‘let it be done.’ Dr. Montgomery’s whole life was a fiat. It was constantly saying to the Lord, ‘I’m not sure I get it. I’m not sure I understand. But let it be done.’ So, it’s appropriate that on that feast day, when we recall Mary saying to the Archangel Gabriel, ‘Let it be done according to the Lord’s will,’ we also remember Aurelia, a mother, a mentor, a friend, a confidant, a person of faith, a person of deep prayer and commitment to the Lord, and a person who allowed her life to say fiat, let it be done,” the rector concluded.

Dr. Montgomery remained close to Archbishop Emeritus Kurtz after he left the Diocese of Knoxville to become the Archbishop of Louisville. She also was close to Monsignor Xavier Mankel, who she worked with for years from when she first began teaching at Knoxville Catholic High School until she retired as principal of St. Joseph School in 2011 and beyond until his death in 2017.

Also in 2011, Dr. Montgomery received The Immaculata Award, a diocesan honor “in recognition of total dedication and unselfish service to Christ and His Body the Church, for the generosity of (her) labors in support of the Diocese of Knoxville, (her) untold works of mercy as a Good Samaritan within the community, and uncompromising witness to the Catholic faith.”

Dr. Montgomery served as superintendent of the Diocese of Knoxville’s 10 schools from 1990-2001, part of which was during Archbishop Kurtz’s ministry as the second bishop of Knoxville from 1999-2007.

Archbishop Kurtz delivered a eulogy for Dr. Montgomery toward the conclusion of the funeral Mass. He conveyed Archbishop Shelton J. Fabre’s prayers and gratitude for Dr. Montgomery’s service to the Church and the Diocese of Knoxville.

The archbishop said he received a call from Dr. Montgomery shortly before she passed away.

“Every once in a while, I received a call from Aurelia. Usually, it would be an extended message on the answering machine, which I would think, ‘Darn, I missed it again.’ But this time three weeks ago I was too quick. I answered the phone, and she and I had a wonderful conversation. We talked about faith, family, and her commitment to children in Catholic school.

“Let me do that in reverse order. We talked about her commitment to students in Catholic school. Father John Orr was good enough to send me a copy of the doctoral dissertation that Aurelia did. I was pleasantly surprised that it was in 1999. It was at the end of that year that I became bishop here in Knoxville. Not surprisingly, the topic of Aurelia’s dissertation was one that will be dear to your heart. It was the internalization of the values of the Gospel in students who experience Catholic school, grades 1-8,” the archbishop said.

“Her commitment, not only to being a teacher, a principal, and a lover of young people, was to convey a witness to the faith. And nobody did that like Aurelia. And we’re grateful for that. She’s a giant. And those who follow her in Catholic education will do well to remember her. In fact, when I get home, I’m going to read that dissertation.

“Secondly, her gift of family. She couldn’t wait to tell me about Anthony going to college and all the things that are happening. She would fill me in on all of her friends and the mutual friends that we had. She was a great one to love her family and to be proud of her family and to support her family in any way she could. It’s a lesson in our culture that you and I need to learn. We know that.

“Finally, and most importantly, she was a woman of strong faith. Aurelia would be able, no matter what the situation was, to deal with challenges. When I was here as bishop, we often would talk about this or that challenge. There was never a problem. There were only challenges. And we would talk about a lot of challenges. In that process, I saw the great gift she had in faith. Faith in the presence of God in each one of our lives and in the lives of each teacher and student,” Archbishop Kurtz said in conclusion. “I don’t know if there are vigil lights in heaven, but as we pray that she will be blessed to go right to heaven, we know that there is probably a vigil light already lit for each one of us, her friends. May she rest in peace.”

Following the final commendation, an inurnment service for Dr. Montgomery was held in the columbarium at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The words of Dr. Montgomery’s obituary illustrated her life well:

“Aurelia was a faithful parishioner of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and was a devoted mother, mother-in law, grandmother, cousin, and friend. She was the epitome of a southern lady but was also a tomboy at heart. A devout Catholic and a patriotic American, she had great respect and love for her Italian heritage and her Italian-American family. … As a lifelong educator, Aurelia expected excellence from herself and her students and sought to teach by example. She encouraged everyone to believe in themselves and set high goals, emphasizing the necessity of cooperating with the Holy Spirit to do God’s will on earth.”

Dr. Montgomery was preceded in death by her husband, William Montgomery; parents, Paul and Lydia Punaro; brother, Angelo; and sister, Teresa. She is survived by her son, Paul; daughter-in-law, Francesca, and grandson, Anthony.

Paul Montgomery, a Knoxville Catholic High School graduate as is his son, Anthony, said his mother had a servant’s heart and was joyous in serving wherever God needed her.

“Mom lived a long life. She was blessed by the Lord with lots of friends, lots of people who cared for her, and good health right up until the end. That has been an enormous grace during this time. So many people have been praying for her and praying for us. We are so grateful,” he said.

While noting that his mother would recoil at any mention or even suggestion of her accomplishments, he acknowledged that those accomplishments can be seen in the students she taught, who graduated from Knoxville Catholic High School and went on to be successful in their lives.

Mr. Montgomery said much of the time Dr. Montgomery was teaching, serving as a principal, or serving as superintendent of diocesan schools, he was living and working in Washington, D.C., so he didn’t have the benefit of hearing from others how they were impacted by Dr. Montgomery.

“Everyone has been so gracious and so thoughtful. They are sharing with me that ‘your mom did this’ or ‘your mom did that.’ And ‘I owe this to your mom.’ That warms my heart. It is very gratifying,” he said. “Mom used to say, ‘If we cooperate with the Holy Spirit, and we trust in Jesus, everything is going to be OK.’ The challenge, I believe, for all of us is to believe those things and to try to do them. She really tried to demand excellence, beginning with herself. And that permeated to everyone around her. That was really important to her, and she tried to instill that in others.”

Dickie Sompayrac, president of Knoxville Catholic High School, succeeded Dr. Montgomery in leading the school. Mr. Sompayrac said he knew Dr. Montgomery on several levels. He first met her when she was superintendent of diocesan schools in the early 1990s and he was at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga.

“Aurelia had a long career in Catholic education. She was a teacher here at Knoxville Catholic High School. In 1990, she was Teacher of the Year here at Knoxville Catholic. She then became superintendent and came back to Knoxville Catholic in 2001 as the principal. She impacted a lot of lives. She has worn a lot of hats and had a lot of roles, but I don’t think anyone could have ever questioned her passion for the faith and her relentless drive toward excellence and to do what’s right,” Mr. Sompayrac recalled.

He said Dr. Montgomery encouraged all students to do their best and to do the right thing.

“She had a reputation for being tough. But she followed that toughness up with love, and I think that is the mark of a true educator. Any of us growing up as Catholic remember tough love. The key word there is love, and I think she exemplified that in all the roles she had throughout the years,” he added.

The Diocese of Knoxville has established the Dr. Aurelia Montgomery Memorial Catholic School Fund that will provide funds for Catholic schools throughout the Diocese of Knoxville. The funds will be used to support the educational needs of diocesan schools.

To make a gift in Dr. Montgomery’s memory, go to dioknox.org/dr-aurelia-montgomery-fund or send a check payable to the Diocese of Knoxville and write Dr. Aurelia Montgomery Fund in the memo of the check. Then mail to:
Diocese of Knoxville
Attention: Stewardship—Schools
Memorial Fund
805 S. Northshore Drive
Knoxville, TN  37919

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